A construction project that began this month at The Florida Aquarium will drastically expand the downtown attraction's learning center and private event space, create an additional exhibit area and improve the aquarium's lobby.
An official groundbreaking ceremony for the first of the project's three phases is set for 8 a.m. today.
The Rising Tides Campaign has raised more than $8 million of the $15 million needed to fund the project. An additional $2 million in donations is expected to be confirmed in the coming months, said Mark Haney, the aquarium's vice president of advancement.
The project, slated for completion in fall 2016, will alter the face of the aquarium, adding 38,000 square feet of space and renovating an additional 35,000 square feet.
It is the aquarium's first major expansion since it opened in May 1995.
The project is a "monumental step" for the attraction, said Thom Stork, the aquarium's president.
"It will provide us with an opportunity to continue to execute our mission to the best of our abilities, grow our educational presence in the community and continue to inspire stewardship of our natural environment," Stork said in a statement.
The aquarium grossed over $14 million in the 2011 fiscal year and drew about 650,000 people. Haney hopes the expansion will give the area and the aquarium economic and attendance boosts.
"There's a return on investment in almost every aspect of this expansion," he said.
The first phase, to be completed in May, lays the project's foundation. It expands and enhances the Rays Touch Tank and adds a community room with a capacity of 80 people.
The nonprofit aquarium is continuing to discuss how to schedule the other two phases in ways that will cause the least disruption to visitors.
One key addition will be the new area for events. Right now, the aquarium has maximum seating for 150 people for weddings, conferences and other events.
"We turn down business every day," Haney said. "When people say, 'We want to do a luncheon for 400,' we just can't accommodate it."
The new 8,000-square-foot event area will overlook Garrison Channel and have seating for 600.
Expanding the learning center also is crucial, as the aquarium teaches thousands of children a year, Haney said. The aquarium has about 2,000 square feet of learning space but will have 4,000 to 5,000 after expanding.
The renovated learning center will have a fully equipped laboratory, touch tanks, themed classrooms and live video conferencing capability that will allow students to interact with researchers in the field and students in other countries.
"It will be state of the art," Haney said.
Other changes to the aquarium include adding a 7,400-foot exhibit hall and modifying the aquarium's lobby so it feels like an aquatic environment.
"It starts the guest experience from the second you walk in the door," he said.
This expansion isn't the only project the aquarium is undertaking.
A partnership involving the aquarium, Tampa Electric Co. and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will add a park next to TECO's manatee viewing center in Apollo Beach. That project will feature interactive hiking, bird-watching, canoeing and kayaking trails; fishing camps; a saltwater fish hatchery; and an animal rescue and rehab center.